The hell of individuation and how dancing could be the cure | Brigid Delaney

With our bodies so absent in modern communication, maybe the key to reconnecting as a community lies in the physical

One of my good friends suffered a bereavement so a group of us – all old schoolmates – hired a beach house and arranged to spend some time together.

We ate and drank and talked – but mostly we danced.

The house was large, had concrete floors and faced on to the Southern Ocean. Someone brought a small speaker and playlists had been prepared – everything from a mixture of bangers from our youth to the new Taylor Swift album.

Starting in the late afternoon, we danced for hours and hours and hours, sliding in socks across the smooth floor. We danced all weekend.

The circle changed. Sometimes we were all dancing. Sometimes there was only two or three. Sometimes one.

I don’t know why we danced so hard and for so long but we just did. And when we packed up and left, it was as if some of the sadness had been shaken off.

The following weekend I went to an outdoor dinner in Melbourne. There were a couple of thousand people there, all of us – according to the dinner’s custom – wearing white.

After food, there was dancing. I only knew one other person there, but when dancing it didn’t matter. Dancing with strangers, our mirror neurons firing, golden hour turning the city skyscrapers into fiery columns of light, I felt a sudden bloom of joy.

Maybe the people I was dancing with were dickheads. Maybe they had politics I disagreed with. Maybe they didn’t care about the things I cared about. Maybe they did. Who knows. But for those few hours, in the liminal space of the dance floor, I experienced a connection and warmth towards a bunch of strangers that felt like a medicine.

At 9pm everyone lit up sparklers. Standing on a verge, separated from the crowd, I saw thousands of arms raised, holding these dazzling falling lights.

For a moment the sight of all those people, lit up, in a field made me strangely emotional. I had a surge of love, tenderness and connection with all these strangers, that felt like a benediction.

Then we all danced again.

Dancing with my friends in the beach house was a medicine for grief. In the field, by the Yarra, dancing with strangers was a medicine for something else, itself also a sort of grief, but its origin harder to pin down.

In the weeks since, interrogating the emotion, it feels like an existential grief at being separate and individual, atomised and deracinated. With it comes an almost spiritual hunger to find my way back into that joy; a collective, communal good feeling. But it’s yet another paradise, lost.

The Dîner en Blanc in Melbourne
The Dîner en Blanc in Melbourne. Photograph: Mark Peterson


We live in times where it’s more possible to communicate with more people, in more disembodied forms (such as via chat, apps, the internet) than ever before.

But lately I’ve been wondering if the disembodied nature of our communication is related to the increasing toxicity of our interactions and public discourse. The more absent our bodies are from the scene, the more easy it is to be casually cruel. Social media platforms, rather than bringing us together as promised, increasingly resemble polluted streams, with their continuous flow of abuse and derision reinforcing separation and tribalism.

With mass, disembodied communication so corrupted, it’s no wonder dancing feels like immersion in a cool stream on a hot day. The purity of it, it’s wordlessness – seems like a way through the divide into connection.

It’s hard to fight while dancing, it’s hard to dance angry. Everyone is equal on the dance floor – and comes into the circle with a measure of vulnerability. Am I going to look weird moving my arms, head and legs like this? Yes, probably. But we will all dance badly together.

And then there are the mirror neurons – the automatic way a neuron fires both when we act and when we observe the same action performed by another.

This can happen in humans while dancing, we mirror each other, promoting empathy, attachment and social bonding.

The author Zadie Smith has long had a preoccupation with what it means to feel free. Speaking at Melbourne’s Broadside festival last month, she said: “I feel most free dancing among strangers. It might be a 1990s thing. To me, individuation is a kind of hell; the most human thing is to be part of people, less aware of the self. I’m always trying to lose myself.”

We know now, if we didn’t know before, that the way we are living – as individuals on this burning planet – is no longer sustainable.

Individuation is a kind of hell. And the most human thing is to be part of people, less aware of the self.

How this connects to the political, larger social sphere is not immediately apparent – it requires an imaginative leap. Perhaps that’s why novelists have started making these tentative connections, wondering whether the chasm between citizens and the cynicism of our political age is due to the collapse of the idea of the collective.

The novelist Ben Lerner, speaking on Monocle radio, explored a different way of doing politics, when a more libidinal or sensory experience of the world is able to enter the fray.

“We definitely need a third way,” he said. “There’s either an elite artisanal return to the local or there’s a populist nostalgia that’s a rightwing return to some sort of blood and soil discourse and if these are the only two options then we’re in trouble.

“Part of the issue is the total failure of the left to produce a third option and that’s what has to happen … There has to be a real left vocabulary that’s addressing things like climate and things like inequality but also positively articulating a vocabulary of love, possibility, belonging, excitement – because otherwise we’re all going to be neocons … we get trapped in a Clinton-like neoliberalism because it seems like the only thing we have to oppose the fascist regression of the right – and there actually has to be a third way.”

Lerner touches on the idea of how in our current world where our bodies are mainly absent in our communication, perhaps we can find our way back to connection – or at least openness, through our bodies.

We’re not going to solve the world’s problems on the dance floor but we might make some progress if we start thinking communally rather than individually.

  • Brigid Delaney is a Guardian Australia columnist


Brigid Delaney

The GuardianTramp

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